WATERLOO — Local government and health officials are hopeful — but wary — as Tyson Fresh Meats moves Thursday to reopen its largest pork processing plant after a coronavirus outbreak struck hundreds of workers.
“I am reserved in my optimism and hopeful in my anticipation of Tyson’s resolve to a rededication to worker safety,” said Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson, who heads the county’s emergency operations center dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
“I pray that with this reopening, workers get back to work safely, our county starts turning the corner as we fight this virus, and we can finally start contemplating the terms of recovery for our citizens,” he added.
Tyson Foods announced it would begin limited operation of its Waterloo plant, which has been closed since April 22. At least 444 of the plant’s 2,800 employees had been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health — one of four meatpacking plants in the state to suffer outbreaks.
A Tyson beef plant in Dakota City, Neb., which is the Sioux City metro area’s largest employer, also will open with limited production Thursday, the company reported Wednesday evening. The facility — which is Tyson’s largest beef processing plant — had been idled for deep cleaning.
On Wednesday in Black Hawk County, workers toured the Waterloo plant to see the enhanced safety measures and social distancing procedures.
Two employees said in interviews later the plant now offers more precautions like plastic shields and 6 feet of distance between workers on the line. One, however, had concerns about areas like the locker room where workers gather.
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The company said in a statement that Thompson, Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart, UFCW Local 431 President Bob Waters and other local business leaders toured the plant last Friday to see the changes. A subsequent joint company and community leader review of the new protocols was done to safely resume operations, Tyson officials said.
“Our top priority is the health and safety of our team members, their loved ones and our communities,” said Tom Hart, plant manager of Tyson’s Waterloo facility. “We appreciate the collaboration and support of Black Hawk County health officials, Mayor Hart and Sheriff Thompson as we tested team members and took proactive steps to complement our existing prevention efforts, working with epidemiologists and other experts.”
The plant is Arkansas-based Tyson’s largest pork processing operation, with the ability to process 19,500 hogs per day. That accounts for 3.9 percent of the U.S. pork processing capacity, according to the National Pork Board.
All those who will return to work have been tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, the company said. Those who have tested positive will remain on sick leave until they can return to work.
Tyson said workers who haven’t been tested won’t be able to return, and all new hires must be tested before beginning their jobs.
Tyson said it partnered with Matrix Medical Network, a medical clinical services company, to establish an on-site clinic to provide employees with enhanced care.
According to the Tyson statement, Waters, the president of UFCW Local 431, said that “Tyson has gone above and beyond to keep their employees safe, and I support the reopening of the facility.”
Mayor Hart, who had pushed hard for Tyson to close the Waterloo plant when the COVID-19 outbreak erupted in April, said the plant is reopening with his blessing.
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“I had an opportunity on May 1 to hear their presentation about the steps they were putting in place,” he said. “I appreciate the steps they’re taking, and I’m glad to see the focus on protecting the workers.”
Democratic state Rep. Ras Smith said he was pleased to see Tyson implement worker safety protocols, but he remained concerned about aspects at the plant.
Smith was one of several lawmakers who filed a complaint with Iowa’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration that alleged the company did not take steps to protect its work force.
Smith said he was still concerned test results of the Tyson work force have not been fully compiled and reviewed, and still had questions about whether proper oversight will be in place when the plant reopens.
“One thing I pushed for is independent oversight,” he said. “I’m also concerned about some of the things in the attendance policy and the bonuses tied to attendance. We want to make sure they are not incentivizing employees who are coming to work sick because they want the bonus.”
Jeff Reinitz of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier and Mason Docktor of the Sioux City Journal contributed to this report.
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